Editor's Note: This is an opinion-style article by Hromadske's political correspondent Maxim Kamenev who has long been studying and reporting on Ukrainian politics. The views and opinions expressed in it are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publication.
Dark horse candidate Volodymyr Zelenskiy has established a commanding lead over runner-up incumbent President Petro Poroshenko in the first round of the Ukrainian presidential election, according to the Central Election Commission (CEC).
According to the results, approximately every third Ukrainian voted for Volodymyr Zelenskiy in the first round of Ukraine's presidential election. Photo shows Zelenkiy at his headquarters on March 31. Photo credit: EPA-EFE/STEPAN FRANKO
Zelenskiy is an actor and businessman who hasn’t spent a single day in politics – how did this happen? The answer is well known to the incumbent: Zelenskiy’s campaign has much in common with the Poroshenko campaign in 2014.
A Need for Change
In 2014, Poroshenko responded to the demand for new faces. After Viktor Yanukovych escaped, it was the main public demand. During the Revolution of Dignity, Poroshenko stayed in the shadows of then-opposition leaders.
Then-lawmakers Oleksandr Turchynov (L), Petro Poroshenko (C), and Arseniy Yatseniuk on stage during the Euromaidan protests on February 9, 2014 in Kyiv. Photo credit: UNIAN
Poroshenko started his candidacy just two months before the vote, while Yulia Tymoshenko had just come out of prison and was unable to seriously contend for the presidency. Ukraine’s pro-Russian factions were demoralized by Yanukovych’s departure, and the only ranking politician, Vitali Klitschko, endorsed Poroshenko.
Zelenskiy also entered the race late – he announced on New Year's Eve that he would run – just three months before the elections in 2019. Zelenskiy turned out to be the only non-establishment candidate.
In 2014, Poroshenko’s team tried to create an image of a successful businessman who definitely wouldn’t need to steal from the state budget. In 2019, these illusions were shattered by allegations of his association with embezzlement from the defense industry.
The only highly-regarded politician in 2014 Vitali Klitschko (R) exited the 2014 presidential race in favor of Poroshenko (C). Photo credit: EPA/ALEXEY FURMAN
Zelensky was handed a gift – just like his opponent 5 years ago – to position himself not only as a talented actor, but also as a successful businessman who built the Kvartal 95 Studio, one of the most popular in the former Soviet Union. Even the story of Zelenskiy’s business in Russia – the first serious scandal Zelenskiy had found himself in after entering politics – resembles Poroshenko’s Roshen confectionery factory in Russia.
The shadows of oligarchy tower over both candidates. Poroshenko is still “chocolate king” with his Roshen candy stores found in every city in Ukraine. On the other hand, he accuses Zelenskiy of being a puppet to exiled oligarch Ihor Kolomoysky, who has a personal dispute with Poroshenko.
Former Dnipro region governor, oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky stands in front of journalists before the start of a football congress in Kyiv on March 6, 2015. Photo: UNIAN / Vladyslav Musienko.
Poroshenko’s strategy in 2014 was to secure victory in the first round. At the time, Russia only occupied Crimea, and in the east the anti-terrorist operation continued. There was a need to elect a president quickly.
Poroshenko promised that during his presidency, Ukrainians would live freely, comfortably, honestly and safely. As a result, almost 55% of citizens who came to the polls supported him.
Fast-forward five years and it is now Zelenskiy who speaks about the Ukraine of his dreams. He describes the citizens of his vision as “worthy, free, and rich Ukrainians,” and promises peace and the return of the occupied territories through diplomacy, without providing details.
However, unlike Poroshenko, Zelenskiy did not win in the first round. Preliminary results of the first round show that Ukrainians are not ready to unconditionally trust one or other candidate.
Data by the CEC shows that this time around, the election tendencies across Ukraine have changed. In 2014, residents of the southern and eastern regions mostly ignored the presidential elections. In 2019, there was a high turnout in these predominantly Russian-speaking regions. Residents in western and central regions voted passively.
Also unlike Poroshenko in 2014, Zelenskiy couldn’t win in all regions. In the Donbas, he lost to Donetsk native Yuriy Boyko, and in the Lviv and Ternopil regions – to the incumbent. In the Ivano-Frankivsk region, he lost to Yulia Tymoshenko.
However, if anyone can claim they united Ukraine in the votes, it would be Zelenskiy. He won 19 regions, including Vinnytsia, the homebase for Poroshenko.
Zelenskiy even won the military vote – despite the fact that Poroshenko is the commander-in-chief.
Soldiers collect their ballot papers in Starychi village, Lviv region, Ukraine on March 31, 2019. Photo credit: EPA-EFE/MARKIIAN LYSEIKO
Where will the Ukrainian dream lead?
Over a half-decade, Poroshenko’s slogan “Living in a new way” was transformed into “Army! Language! Faith! ” – more closely resembling a nationalist platform than his promises in 2014.
That was enough to get into the second round in 2019.
Even if Poroshenko wins, the results of the first round will haunt him. Some sociologists say the first round more accurately represents the will of the people, because in the second round, citizens will vote “against” a candidate. Therefore, even if he wins, Poroshenko will still remain "the president of 17% of citizens."
Poroshenko admits that he did not manage to beat poverty, otherwise that wouldn’t be one of his pre-election promises in 2019.
In his campaign, Poroshenko no longer discusses the paramount importance of fighting corruption, even though Ukrainians still consider it one of the five key problems in the country. Courts under his president have been unwilling or unable to decisively enforce justice – the murder of journalist Pavel Sheremet has been unsolved; and Kateryna Handziuk’s case has gone off the radar. Even if the president cannot directly solve these crimes, Poroshenko’s earlier promises of “safe life” seem ironic to many.
On election night, speaking at his campaign headquarters, Poroshenko said that he understood that the result of Zelenskiy’s win.
“I fully understand your discontent. I heard you, but I ask you to hear me too,” Poroshenko addressed the youth, reminding them of travel to the EU visa-free, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s statements that he was ready to negotiate with anyone but him, and again promised to apply for EU membership. NATO, the "peacekeepers" in the Donbas and, of course, seriously deal with the economy.
One-on-one with Putin
Polls show that Poroshenko could not convince the majority of Ukrainians about the threat of Russian aggression – one of the key pillars of his campaign. A nation-wide poll in December 2018, on the eve of the start of the presidential campaign, showed that a Russian invasion ranks only fifth in a list of concerns Ukrainians have. In other words, Ukrainians want peace – but do not really believe in the threat of a Russian invasion.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko speaks at his election headquarters on March 31, 2019. Photo credit: EPA-EFE/SERGEY DOLZHENKO
The most obvious testimony to this is the reaction of Ukrainians to martial law, which the President introduced in November in 11 regions of the country. Poroshenko argued this was necessary to counter a full-scale Russian invasion. However, even the president’s allies in the parliamentary coalition of the People’s Front, the most militant faction of the Verkhovna Rada, were skeptical of this idea. After the end of martial law, only 21% of citizens fully supported this move, while almost 60% did not support it.
While Poroshenko is casting Putin as a boogeyman, Zelenskiy laughs off the question of how he’ll negotiate with Moscow, something he previously promised to do.
At the Zelenskiy campaign headquarters and after the exit polls results were announced, Hromadske asked the candidate what he would say to Putin during their first meeting.
“What, is there already a date when Putin and I are meeting?” Zelenskiy asked before adding “I will say: finally you have returned our territories, what’s your financial compensation going to be?”
Ukrainian presidential candidate Volodymyr Zelenskiy answers journalists' questions at his election headquarters in Kyiv, Ukraine on March 31. Photo credit: EPA-EFE/STEPAN FRANKO
Zelenskiy’s election program does not mention that Ukraine will be an EU member, while the question of a NATO membership should be a referendum matter, he believes. Members of his team, such as Ruslan Stefanchuk who is responsible for ideology at Zelenskiy’s headquarters, promise that ordinary Ukrainians will have more power – they will be able to dismiss officials, deputies and even repeal laws.
In 2014, Poroshenko also did not demonize Putin. In August 2014, he did not rule out holding “bilateral consultations” with the president of Russia. But in the last two years he has been assuring that if he communicates with Putin, it would only be about the release of Ukrainian prisoners of war and hostages.
The idea that it is impossible to agree on something with Putin, Poroshenko only realized after many hours of negotiations in the Normandy format.
Throughout his presidency, Poroshenko has changed his views on many things. For example, the need to provide autocephaly to the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, the expediency of creating anti-corruption courts in the country, and many other areas. However, he did not fulfill the will of the people. To some extent, Poroshenko himself created a situation where a comedian can win in the second round.
/By Maxim Kamenev
/Translated by LP Luo